Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Celebrating the front office (part 2)

Back by popular's the second half of the Patriots front office tribute!

So far here at PDP, we've covered the molding of malcontents (Corey Dillon, Randy Moss) into successful teammates, the acquisition of diamonds in the rough (Tyrone Poole, Wes Welker) and the transformation of one castoff (Rodney Harrison) into a New England Patriot icon.

All good moves by Belichick, Pioli and Co. But two other moves stand out above the rest. Without further ado, the cream of the New England front office decision-making crop:

2. The 2003 NFL draft

This is what made "Scott Pioli" a household name, Bill Belichick a gameplan genius and laid the groundwork for the Patriots 2000s dynasty.

The men in the NFL draft war room, led by Pioli and Belichick with New England, are rated on their abilities to get impact players in the late rounds. Anyone can get a good player out of the top overall pick. It takes true scouting and an eye for talent and character that helps mold the third-rounder, on into a Pro Bowler.

And the Patriots went wild in 2003.

In the first round, with the 13th pick, they selected Ty Warren out of Texas A&M. In the second round, with the 36th overall pick, they took Eugene Wilson out of Illinois. Later on in the second round, with the 45th pick, they drew from Texas A&M again, this time selecting fleet-footed wideout Bethel Johnson.

Two picks later, in the fourth round with the 120th overall pick, New England took Central Florida's Asante Samuel. Forty-four picks later, in the fifth round, the Patriots went local and took Boston College's Dan Koppen.

This was an amazingly successful draft for New England. Warren went on to become the Pro-Bowl caliber defensive lineman he is today, Wilson became a starting safety on two Super Bowl teams, and Johnson became a lethal kick returner for the two-time Super Bowl champs. Koppen quickly became the starting center, Tom Brady's good friend and the Pro Bowler he is today.

But the biggest victory in this was Samuel, the fourth-rounder who quickly grew into a Pro Bowl cornerback and shutdown defender. He led the AFC in interceptions in 2006 and made the Pro Bowl in 2007, en route to becoming one of the most dynamic big-play defensive backs in the league.

In one draft, the Patriots turned a soft defense and special teams unit that missed the playoffs in 2002 into units that would be responsible for two Super Bowls, three conference championships and five straight defensive titles. New England would spend the following years adding players to keep the team strong, but smarts and good instincts in the 2003 draft allowed them to build a foundation that lasted through the years.

And who's No. 1? The bigger question is, did you need to ask?

1. Tom Brady

This is the easy answer, the off-the-top-of-the-head answer, and the popular answer. But it's also the right one. When you think about what the Patriots were, what the Patriots are, and how they fared in between, nobody is more important to that success than Thomas Edward Brady, Jr.

Add the fact that he was a then-unknown, the now-famed 199th pick out of Michigan, and you wonder how the Patriots did it. How they saw in a skinny, slow, unathletic kid the ability to become one of the best quarterbacks and leaders the game has ever seen.

There's no need to delve into Brady's accomplishments. Somewhere on the common-sense scale, between the color of the sky and the amount of hours in a day, is Brady's iconic role in the New England sports history. The accomplishments are only part of the genius that was his draft selection. The scouting process was the real magic.

One hundred and ninety-eight selections passed before Brady heard his name called. For each one, the Patriots knew he was their guy, the man to replace the golden-armed Drew Bledsoe. New England had its draft strategy down to two paths - Brady or Louisiana Tech's Tim Rattay, as Pro Football Weekly wrote when Brady had his injury this year:
Rattay has bounced around between a few clubs, with career marks of 31 touchdowns and 23 interceptions mildly besting Simms’ production. The fact that Rattay is on the Pats’ radar screen comes as no big surprise. During the 2000 NFL draft, the Patriots were torn between him and Brady before ultimately selecting the latter who’d go on to lead the team to three Super Bowl titles.
On draft day, the Patriots drooled over those two players, but took advantage of Rattay's and Brady's low stock by selecting Adrian Klemm ... and J.R. Redmond ... and Greg Randall ... and Antwan Harris, all players who would play crucial roles on the Super Bowl winning team the next year.

But not as big a role as the next selection. With Rattay off the board, the Patriots draft crew realized they couldn't wait any longer, and snatched up Brady. The team, and the league, wouldn't be the same.

The great thing about this pick is that it wasn't luck. The Patriots didn't happen to get the best quarterback in the game today. They saw it from the start. They watched him at Michigan, followed him, and kept their eye on him when no other teams knew he existed. The best pick in team history, and the single greatest draft selection ever made.

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